Sunday, 24 October 2010

James Bond PI: The American origins of 007. Third and final part.

Of course, Fleming had other influences, taken most notably from his wartime experiences. He recalled how, during the war, he controlled No. 30 Assault Unit, comprising a rough bunch of ‘courageous, amoral, wayward’ Royal Marines. Fleming’s intention was clear: not so much to draw James Bond as an American hero, though the parallels are close, but to disassociate Bond from the ‘stage Englishman’, returning virtues to the character that were gained in the war, but rapidly lost with the onset of peace and the dismantling of Empire. The solution was to combine the confident swagger of the American detective with the resolve and resourcefulness of the British Commando. With this in mind, the clues become obvious.

Beyond his anti-aristocratic name and un-gentlemanly way of killing, Bond is an arch-consumer, deliberately selecting and remaining loyal to brand-names – Hoffritz razors, Palmolive toiletries, Ronson cigarette lighter, among others – in defiance of post-war ration-book austerity. Instead of tea and beer, the most English of beverages, Bond drinks strong coffee and hard liquor. In an American bar, Fleming describes Bond paying for the check, not the bill. And, as if to reinforce his credentials, Bond reads the latest Raymond Chandler.

Another crucial element in reorientating the English hero was the locations. Just one novel – Moonraker ­– is set extensively in England. Of the remainder, five of Bond’s adventures are set to lesser or greater extents in the United States. Fleming was at pains to get the Americanisms right, especially the dialogue, and had an assistant librarian at Yale to check his text. The result is an authenticity that, if a little ridiculous in a modern light, nevertheless takes the reader far away from the milieu of the English gentleman-adventurer produced by the likes of Buchan. Fleming’s efforts brought their reward. Though sales were slow to begin – Casino Royale initially failed to find a US publisher, and both this novel and Moonraker were later retitled for the first paperback editions – his books became enormously popular in America. He was surprised at this, but admitted that Bond ‘must seem very American in so many ways – his likes, his dislikes, and his rather full sex life’.

This must have been deeply satisfying for Fleming, a patriotic Englishman determined to keep Britain at the top table with the US. At last there was a tough British hero stripped of stereotypical English traits who could compete on equal terms with Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or Mickey Spillane. Fleming gained the admiration, famously, of Jack Kennedy and, more significantly for him, of Raymond Chandler. In a review of Diamonds Are Forever, Chandler wrote, ‘the scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other [English] writer who has accomplished this’. Chandler had deduced Fleming’s aim of writing an American-style thriller, recognising that, unlike other British crime stories, Fleming’s had a ‘hard, clean style’, devoid of waffle. Chandler, though, had his reservations. He noticed that Fleming wrote ‘of brutal things, as though he liked them’, but advised that ‘the best hard-boiled writers never try to be tough, they allow toughness to happen when it seems inevitable for its time, place and conditions’, pleading for Fleming not to ‘become a stunt writer, or he will end up no better than the rest of us’.

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